WrestleMania season is upon us. With WWE’s biggest event only days away, we here at SteelChair were granted access to a media call with the current Intercontinental Champion, Big E. He has his next big defence on Night 2 of Mania against a common foe in Apollo Crews. The pair have been a war for months with Crews really upping the ante by trying to murder him with steel steps. Big E picked up a win against him at Fastlane, but Crews has been granted another chance at that title. The champ was questioned by the media ahead of this match and spoke of all things Mania-related, the importance of representation, and a new project he has in the works. Let’s get into it.

You’ve faced Apollo Crews about half a dozen times now. What will be different about this Mania match? Has this change in character made him more champion-worthy?

“Yeah, I think Apollo’s presentation now compared to four or five months ago, there’s more invested in him now. He feels like he’s a bigger player now. Especially now with the new entrance, the guards. You can tell that there’s more invested in him. I think what’s different about this is that, for me, at least, this is the first time I’ve had a proper blood feud, a singles blood feud with someone. If a man tries to drop a set of steel steps on you, you should want to do something pretty bad to them. So that’s the situation that we’re in right now. He’s a guy that’s always been extremely talented, but he’s never been presented as that top-tier threat, and now I think he feels like he could be a major player. For me, I want to face guys when they’re at their best. I want to face talent when they’re at their peak, and I want people to be invested. If it’s just me and some guy, then who really cares about me, the match, or the programme? I might not like the way he goes about doing things, but I have a ton of respect for Apollo Crews and his ability. He can do it all from the Gorilla Presses to moving like a Luchador like he’s incredible.”

What do you expect from the Nigerian Drum Fight Stipulation?

“That’s a great question. I don’t know what a Nigerian Drum fight is. I’ll be doing some Googling, maybe reach out to some historians. You’re all wrestling fans if there’s a match that exists, some obscure indie match. I’ve never heard of it, but we’ll figure this out on the fly. Sometimes we’re out there, and we’ll just make up the rules as we go along. I’m sure there’ll be some clarification at some point but, you can expect brutality, physicality, pain, and suffering. I might not know the rules, but it’s going to be physical.”

How amped are you and the rest of the locker to have fans back and what role do the fans play for a WWE show to be successful?

“It’s massive. They’re massive. I know we’ve been doing our best with the Thunderdome, and we have our fans there virtually, obviously. It’s a pandemic, so safety is the priority, but man, for me, if you look at any of the great matches, great runs in wrestling history, it’s all because of fan reaction. What made me a massive Goldberg fan as a kid, sure he looked cool, and he was jacked, but it was these arenas just going crazy for him. That’s what got me invested. When you think of Daniel Bryan and the YES Movement. You think of him and his ability, but also those wide-shots where they zoom out to the whole arena, and everyone’s doing the yes chant. Same thing with Kofi (Kingston), it’s the reaction, that organic reaction. I think that’s what separates our business, our industry, and especially WWE from so many other facets of entertainment. You have this real, live, sometimes unpredictable organism from our fans. They’re just as important as the wrestlers in the ring at making those massive moments. It’s exciting to be coming back for me selfishly. I’m coming home. This is Raymond James, this is the same stadium where I played my high school all-star football game in 2003. This is my city. I’m born and raised here. I used to live here, so to be able to come back here after a year of not having fans and my first match with fans is at home in Tampa, in my city just down the road, is something that I’m really grateful for.”

You and Apollo have had a similar character development from raw physicality to where you are now. His was more abrupt but he seems to be using the best of it. What are your thoughts on this?

“I think the same. I think a lot of people have criticisms, and I’m not saying they’re not rightly placed, but I will say for me, as a black man, I’m not Nigerian, I’m not Nigerian-American, so I can’t really speak to his experience. Often times I’m reaching out to people like Wale, who is Nigerian, and asking, “Hey does this feel right to you? Is this authentic?” I feel it’s not my place to tell him the best way to be Nigerian or Nigerian-American or to represent his people. These are things I’m learning, that I don’t know. In a similar way, some of my character changes were a bit abrupt. I think it was when I was working with Rusev, and we were just playing around with different deliveries. I wouldn’t watch this back because I’d be cringing, but for me, I think it’s all about finding that footing. I had to learn to pull back certain things, and my hope for Apollo’s sake is that he can find where to pull back and where to adjust. So much of what we do is on the fly. What’s going to be important for him is when he moves on from me, when I beat him, if he’s trying to sustain a career in WWE, he has to figure this out. I see a guy who’s extremely talented, and I want to see him win. I don’t want to see him win against me, but I want to see him win in a way where he’s a guy that figures it out. We need more people like that featured. SmackDown is stacked, and there are more people on it who need the opportunities to kick in the door and really shine.”

What’s your favourite aspect in the build-up to Mania? Is it the fans, the excitement, and what’s the general feeling like in the locker room in the build-up?

“The lead-up has been cool, you know? One thing that I’m excited for is before Kofi and Woods have their match, we’re back doing a live version of our podcast, and we haven’t done that in a long time. We’re going to have brunch, and there will be bottomless mimosas. The main excitement for all of us is getting back to what we do. When I started back in 2009, it was all about your ability to move a crowd. That’s the beauty of what we do. I think there are guys that can do it all in the ring and get little reaction, and guys who maybe aren’t so good in the ring get massive reactions. I think this pandemic era can expose certain people, and I think the beautiful thing about getting back to crowds is we’re getting back into the essence of our industry. I’m hoping that people are as excited as we are and that they’re loud and into it. I hope we get to put on a good show.”

How’s it been performing with no fans?

“It’s going to be a re-adjustment. We’ve been trying our best with the canned reactions. It’s really hard for me to think, yeah, this match is really awesome when it’s just someone in the truck pushing the “this is awesome” chant. When you’re actually out there, and people are actually telling you that you’re killing it, and you can look them in the eyes as they tell you, “Yes, we love this,” or “we’re entertained” or “we’re happy we spent our hard-earned money to see you.” That, for me, is the best, most fulfilling way to connect with an audience. That’s what I’m excited about is getting back to that and entertaining. It’s been a rough year, so I’m hoping if you’re in the stands or watching at home, we can help to lighten things for a little bit and entertain. Hopefully, we put on a hell of a show.”

Are you preparing a big entrance, something special?

“Yeah, we’re cooking something up. I can’t divulge it to you though. I love surprises. That’s one of the things I love as a fan watching WrestleMania, and I don’t want to know the gear beforehand. I want to be surprised, and I know we’re in this age where we like to announce guests to get more eyes on the show, and I get that, but I like to be surprised and keep this close to my chest. But yes, we have something planned that you will probably be hearing about soonish.”

What was it like working with Sheamus and Sami Zayn to flesh out this solo prophecy?

“That’s a great point actually. As much as I might want to take credit for my run, I’ve been really blessed with having great dance partners. Sheamus has had some kind of revitalisation, he’s been killing it in-ring man. He brings a certain intensity out of you. You know, if you’re watching a Sheamus match, there’s going to be some brutality. You’re going to see some welts on him, and I’ll have the same welts. We got to do the stuff with the car and the security guard, and he was the perfect dance partner for me to show that intensity that I may not have had to show before. You know that guy is going to bring it, so if you don’t, he’s going to eat you up. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be eaten up on live TV, it isn’t happening, and Sami, Sami is so wildly entertaining. There were times when I felt I had to be more serious, but I didn’t want to be overshadowed by him. I just watched the stuff he was doing with Logan Paul; I don’t know what those dance moves were, but I couldn’t look away. I am so wildly entertained by him and his nonsense. So, there was Sheamus and Sami, now Apollo is really stepping up. It’s what I love as far as great feuds or programmes is when guys can not only bring it in the ring or physically, but bring something new with characters. I love that all three of those guys are so unique. I don’t think we have another Sheamus. There’s definitely not another Sami, and Apollo is separating himself too. Those guys I have a ton of respect for.”

WWE likes to try and pit former tag partners against each other. Who out of Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston would you rather fight at Mania?

“Nice try, it’s not happening. We have a word for you. You’re a wedge-driver. You’re trying to drive a wedge between my brothers. Why would I ever want to do that? That’s like me coming up to you and asking would you rather have a match with your mom or your sister? I would never say that because I respect you. I just want you to respect me. What me and my family have built. Why would you want to have me hit my brother? We have so many men I could beat up and put hands-on, and you want me to hit my family. You should be ashamed of yourself. You sound like a good person, but you’ve got to take a good look inside yourself at your moral fibre. Do some soul searching and deep thinking because it ain’t happening.”

How was it for you adjusting to the New Day being on separate shows? Was it hard going back to being a solo performer?

“We were bummed. We definitely wanted to, just like how Kofi was able to become world champion with our group still being intact, with us on the same show, and we also felt it gives us more opportunities in that, “Hey, we go do six-mans, tag stuff, solo stuff.” We’re like this Swiss army knife of a faction in that we can all break apart and come together. I think there was a bit of a silver lining from us all being on separate shows as it forced us to create separate identities. Those two are such a comfort blanket for me, knowing that they’re there and we can talk. I think the biggest thing for me was adjusting to being a solo performer and finding the right footing, even simple things like, how do I come down the ramp? I have new theme music, the feeling of it is a little bit different. We go from the upbeat gospel to a more heavy-hitting hip-hop theme. I have to think about gear, these are all still things that I’m playing with because the attitude definitely shifts going from this jovial three-man group to being on my own. When it’s just you, things feel different. The dynamic shifts without having those two extra bodies there. How do I make sure I’m still myself, and I’m still unique?”

First off, I wanted to congratulate you on winning the Wrestling Observer Jon Huber and Shad Gaspard Memorial Award. You have been an activist for the Black Lives Matter movement and now you are launching “Our Heroes Rock,” a 3D-animated family series. The pilot episode about Ruby Bridges, the first child to be a student in elementary school in the South in 1960. Can you tell us more about that project and how it is important for you?

“It’s massively important to us. Right now, because it’s a long process we’ve given ourselves, though, we hope it doesn’t take this long until the end of the year. Hopefully, it’ll be sooner than that. We’re so excited about it. I think, for me, after the murder of George Floyd, I felt this real hopelessness. I felt real sorrow, I really hadn’t before. I don’t remember the death of someone I’d never met affecting me in this way, and I had so many conversations with my family, my black friends, and so many teary, emotional conversations. When you mention Brodie, in many ways, it was a hard year. He was one of my best friends on the earth, and it’s hard to imagine that he’s gone. I felt a real need to use my time here because there are no guarantees. In my career in WWE, there are no guarantees. I have an opportunity, a platform, I have time on this earth, and a time where people know my name and care somewhat about what I have to say. I want to use that for good, so I got with Jonathan Davenport and Andreas Hale, two very talented individuals I’m working on this project with. It’s as much their project as it is mine. It’s the spiritual successor for us to Schoolhouse Rock.

“I know people who are in their 20s, or their 50s and 60s that remember those same Schoolhouse Rock jingles and learned about bills and laws, and we thought why can’t we do the same thing with these important black historical figures. I think the story of Ruby Bridges is incredible. She was a six-year-old girl who had to integrate into an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960. She’s younger than both my parents. She’s still alive. These issues, systemic racism, we see all these black and white photos and think it was 200 years ago, but it wasn’t that long ago, and it’s still very poignant. I think if we continue to tell these stories we educate our children. I think the beautiful thing too is with her story, is you have this black girl who had to be exceptionally brave. She was escorted to school by four US Marshals, but you also have this story of one white teacher, Barbara Henry, who was the only teacher that said she was going to teach this child. I think it’s just an incredible story all-around. Our Kickstarter is still going. It’ll be over when WrestleMania is over.”

As an African-American man, how does it feel to say you are the Intercontinental Champion and have that spotlight, not just for the WWE fanbase but for the culture and the African-Americans looking up to you as a role model?

“I think it’s important. I think representation does matter, especially in media. I’m someone who feels like they were raised by TV and film because I spent so much of my childhood, like I do now, plopped on the couch watching stories. It’s an honour, and one of the things that I really love is looking around the company and looking at the WrestleMania card and there is black talent throughout. You see the talent, and they’re not the type who got that spot as a diversity initiative. You look at Bianca [Belair], she’s undeniable. She’s an undeniable star to me. Same thing with Sasha Banks. Look at Bobby Lashley. You look at all the black talent on this card from top to bottom, and I just think there are so many people that are talented and deserving. It’s something you see throughout our industry, and it’s something I’ve been paying more attention to. Even outside our company, there are so many talented black wrestlers who are unique, don’t have to lean on stereotypes, who can be themselves, be nerds, or present themselves in a unique way. That’s something I’m really proud of and want to see more of. People from all shades and backgrounds getting to do what we do. The message should be that there are no limitations based on your skin colour or your sexual orientation. If you’re dope and good at what you do, you should be given the same opportunities as your white counterparts.”

All images courtesy of WWE, special thanks to Alex Sutton for the call